Gillian Quinton: What HR influence means to me

To discover what HR influence means, Ashridge Business School interviewed our top practitioners from 2016's HR Most Influential, sponsored by Open University Business School

Running a county council is a vast undertaking. It covers key areas such as children’s social care, transport and planning, schools and libraries, street lighting, as well as more prosaic issues such as disposal of the rubbish- all essential parts of modern living. There are other requirements on top of this from time to time too, such as organising the staff and polling stations needed for local elections.

And the past few years have been anything but settled for those working in the public sector. National austerity has meant severe cuts to local (and national) government. In Buckinghamshire it has meant a 50% cut in the resources available to the council, and the same reduction for staffing levels. Dealing with this has been challenging and not an easy environment for the council or for the HR team, led by Gillian Quinton.

Quinton is executive director (resources) and a member of the senior executive team of the council. In addition to HR she also leads legal, customer services, IT, property, finance and business continuity. This role has given her a broad perspective of the changes that have occurred in recent years. The scale of the challenges the council has dealt with have required new models of working, and it seems certain that the cuts are likely to continue into the future. While ‘doing more with less’ is never easy or simple, some of the changes introduced have meant different ways of working for staff, as well as transforming HR policy, practice
and delivery.

HR influence and HR as force multipliers

Quinton says that the level of influence HR has across the council is somewhere around an eight out of ten. “We have managed to keep quite a strong presence in HR across the organisation despite the changes in staffing levels and the fact that as a council we have less resources,” she says. “People do see it as an enabling service that is focused on helping others to do their job well.”

Quinton describes this model of HR as a ‘force multiplier’. “By this I mean that for every £1 we invest in HR then that’s an investment in the bottom line; putting this investment into HR means we can create a strong support structure for managers and staff alike. Everyone here can therefore see a strong alignment between financial issues and the value of HR,” she says. This model also applies to the other support services such as finance, IT, customer contact, property and legal.

Another factor in this high level of HR influence is what happens at the most senior levels of the council. Quinton describes a very supportive environment. “As a member of the executive team I can be influential and that’s really helpful, but also I believe it’s a lot to do with the type of senior team we have here,” she says. “It is collegiate and a very collaborative culture and makes us different to some senior teams in the public sector. You can always count on the support of other directors and the most likely question between us during our meetings is ‘how can we support each other?’”

It is very much a model of shared responsibility: “There is no room for personal ego here – we can’t tolerate that – and so when we are making senior level appointments we take a good deal of care to ensure that the people who join understand the value of collaboration and cooperation between different departments and among their colleagues. We want people to work corporately and so focus on the leadership behaviours that will help to build a good team.”

This means the senior team appreciates the value of HR; there are no battles about HR being involved in each and every part of strategy, recruitment, succession planning, training and development and in ways of working.

Quinton also highlights an ability to create a fast pace. “You definitely need to be someone who can move quickly and push things through the organisation quickly,” she says. However, she also emphasises the other part of the director’s role: depth. “You must be able to go very deep in your understanding when necessary,” she comments.

Quinton says “a strong leadership that helps to move everyone around you in the direction of travel and positivity is a great asset.” She adds: “If you believe in the excellence of what you and your team are doing then this will help build the team’s self-belief. You also need to be flexible, practical and creative in the ways that you use the resources you have available to you. I think pragmatism is a great asset.”

There is also something here about the value of longevity in a senior role. Quinton joined the council in 2005 and those years in between have given her many great opportunities to build relationships with people at all levels of the organisation. Creating a ‘map of HR connectivity’ might be an important first step when an HRD joins any new organisation, advises Quinton. It’s asking: Where are we weak? Where do we have strong connections and how can we maximise the potential of those relationships?

Radical change for HR roles and policies

Not only have the number of HR policies been scaled back dramatically at the council. The role of HR as ‘business partner’ has also been redesigned and improved. The aim of the ‘business partner’ role across the council was always to create closer synergy and provide stronger, more targeted support to departmental directors across the organisation.

The idea of HR as ‘business partners’ was already established. But by 2015 it was clear that in practice the system was not delivering enough of what was needed. A review indicated that because these ‘business partners’ were also responsible for managing their own teams, this sometimes got in the way of working closely with their departmental director. Despite the best intentions, the business partner role got somewhat neglected, as people gravitated towards managing the detail of HR within a team of colleagues, “which was everybody’s comfort zone.”

Quinton’s solution was to totally split the two roles, taking away the team management role to allow people to concentrate on the partner role. These two roles often need different skillsets, attitudes and behaviours and while some people felt confident taking them on, not everyone wished to.

Another major change has been boiling down the number of HR policies into a more manageable collection for managers. The team reduced 45 policies down to the five statutory policies that each County Council must comply with.

As might be expected with such a major change there was considerable debate at senior level. Some people thought managers would find their jobs impossible to do without detailed information on all the policies being removed. But “we need to treat our managers as adults and if we treat them as adults, then they will act as adults,” says Quinton. Indeed “providing managers with discretion and guidance where necessary” has proved a great success.

Buckinghamshire Council is certainly leading the way here. “We don’t follow fashions here and we are definitely bucking the trend compared to what other councils are doing,” comments Quinton.

“Rather than following fashion, we’ve always looked at what is it that will help the organisation deliver its business objectives and this change is definitely something that will make life easier for our managers. My mantra is let’s make it easy and as simple as possible for managers.”

These important changes have come as part of a wider review looking for ways that can help deliver a step change for the council. One part of this wide-ranging initiative has been removing compression in decision-making, aimed at improving effectiveness and at stopping managers at different levels simply duplicating decisions that someone above, or below, their level is also taking. A related project is redesigning the role of the manager so they focus solely on managing rather than delivering on numerous other KPIs as well, which means these managers can then run larger teams. It’s early days but it seems to be making a big difference, creating more efficiency across the council and helping deliver significant cost-savings.

This will help ensure the council is future-proofed when more cuts are made to local government spending. “If you don’t think ahead all the time and just salami slice the budget all the time then this will not be sufficient,” says Quinton.

The public versus the private sector

The difference between working in the public sector compared with a private sector environment is often discussed. Quinton’s view from her own experience also having worked in retail is that “the two are not that different despite the perceptions out there that – certainly in the public sector there is less resource to play with and we also have a different working environment as we are working closely with our local councillors.” Understanding the political aspect is something that Quinton says is often hard in the early days when people join from the private sector. “But essentially there is the same legislation in both sectors and so I do think that the difference is overstated,” says Quinton.

HRMI eight factors of influence

Of the eight factors of influence used in judging the HR Most Influential (HRMI) ranking, Quinton highlights three. The first is number one: HRDs ‘being able to achieve significant outcomes in their own business.’ She also cites number eight: gaining responsibility for other areas beyond HR. Quinton has led the council’s major transformation programme over the past few years which has delivered £35 million in savings. When Qunitin joined in 2005 she was director of HR and OD (organisational development); now she is a member of the senior executive team and executive director of a far bigger range of resources, including finance, legal, property, customer contact and IT.

Number seven on the list ‘about developing others in the HR function’ is also “really important”. Whether it’s about helping people within her own HR team or elsewhere across the profession, Quinton is keen to share her experience. She recognises that this is something that can help raise skills levels for the HR profession overall. Quinton also supports professional networks; for example she was president of the Public Sector People Managers Association (PPMA) 2009/10.

For other HRMI practitioner 2016 interviews, download our free HR Most Influential interviews ebook

Read more on this year's HRMI rankings, sponsored by Open University Business School, here